Tricked into slaveryBack home in Nepal after two torturous years in the Middle East, Seema Rai (name changed), 24, of Sankhuwasabha
“I had never imagined that the agents, people whom I trusted, would deceive me,” says Rai, who has finally summoned the strength to tell her story. A mother of an eight-year-old, Rai had decided to go abroad and make a living for herself after she had divorced her husband, who often used to abuse her at home.
When Rai landed at Dubai International Airport, she had with her only a visitor’s visa for the UAE and another one for Syria. She had been told by her agents in Kathmandu—Ashish Khadka, Jeevan Urau and Rajendra Khadka—that she would have to fly to Syria, where there would be other agents who would help her obtain a work-visa, within a week, for the UAE. She flew to Damascus with two other women like her, but as soon as they landed, the trio were broken up and they were each whisked away in a different vehicle, all headed for different locations. Rai was taken to a flat whose only inhabitant was a middle-aged woman. The woman proceeded to lock up the flat, and when Rai asked her what was happening and where the agents who were supposed to procure her visa were, the woman only provided non-committal answers.
Lost and disoriented, she spent not just that day, but a month, waiting for the woman to tell her what was going on; to keep her sanity from slipping, she would stare out the window of her tiny room, at patches of the sky, hoping things weren’t as bad as they seemed. After about a month, the woman finally approached Rai and told her that she had been sold by the Nepali agents to the woman for $ 7,000 and that she would have to pay that sum back if she wanted to get away. The only other option was for her to work as a housemaid. Broken, Rai complied—and kept house for the woman, without pay, for 21 months.
Things wouldn’t have been so bad for Rai if she hadn’t been part of all the different illegalities at play, says Basant Basnet, a lawyer who deals with women’s rights issues. First, Rai had believed that the agents were “helping her out” because they were acquaintances—in her desperation to get out of the country, she believed that the agents were actually good Samaritans who would pay her ticket fare, which she was to pay back later. And instead of filing her papers for a work-visa here, which would have entailed paying around Rs 5,000 to Nepali authorities for the requisite paperwork and orientation programme, she agreed to fly, at the agents’ urging, on a visitor-visa, which is easier to obtain, and which comes free of cost. The ‘agents’, for their part, were all along only going to sell her to a household in Damascus, and pocket the 7,000 dollars for themselves.
In Damascus, after realising that she had become of victim of some nefarious plot that she couldn’t quite fathom, Rai came to the conclusion that the only way out of her predicament was to somehow gain the trust of the woman of the house. Even as she lived the life of a servant—she had to do the dishes, cook the woman’s food, do the laundry, and everything else in between—she tried to win over her employer by performing her tasks to the best of her abilities. Her efforts finally paid off when her employer started taking her along to the market when she needed to shop for groceries. On one of these trips, Rai managed to give her employer the slip and she bought a SIM card (she had tucked away her phone with her belongings). She used the card to call home and let her father know what she was going through.
Her father consulted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Department of Foreign Employment to arrange for her return. After 14 months of repeated attempts by her family to get her back, she was finally home. Once she got here, she promptly filed a case against her rogue agents.
“How the law courts define what happened to Rai,” says Basnet, “will determine what punishment her agents will face. If it can be proved that Rai was in fact trafficked, they will face stiffer punishment. If, on the other hand, the court decides that Rai’s case was just one of foreign-employment fraud—meaning she was made to work at another job instead of the one she had signed up for, then they’ll get off with just a slap on the wrist.” Traffickers are usually punished with 15 to 20 years of imprisonment, whereas agents who commit fraud only have to pay Rs 1 lakh in fine, together with the wages that are owed to the victim.
Rai hopes that the court will conclude that she was in fact trafficked. “I’ve suffered much over the last two years, and I think that the punishment should be commensurate with the crime. The agents trafficked me.”